The logic of suicide attacks in Afghanistan

Suicide terrorism, like 'terrorism' in general, is difficult to define. The act of committing suicide towards a particular objective is nothing new, and we have seen it done by the Bible's Samson and by the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II. The recent global phenomenon of the suicide attack started in the early 1980s, with groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and al-Dawa in Iraq. The former's 1983-85 suicide campaign against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon not only caught international attention, but was also considered an unmitigated success – unable to cope with the assault, Israel eventually retreated from Lebanon almost entirely for decades.

In Sri Lanka, the LTTE has been active since the 1970s, and has played a significant role in bringing suicide attacks to Southasia. The LTTE studied the success of Hezbollah's suicide attacks, but modified the technique to its own requirements. In her 2005 book Dying to Kill, Mia Bloom writes that Tamil Tiger head Velupillai Prabhakaran "saw the potential benefits of this method specifically in carrying out targeted assassination attacks in situations where it was difficult or impossible to attack a certain public figure or group of people using other methods."

The LTTE has thus been held responsible for the assassinations of several political leaders, including Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The LTTE is also unique in that it was one of the first groups to use women as suicide attackers, and to date 30 to 40 percent of the group's attacks have been carried out by women. If the tactic of suicide terrorism has brought attention to the Tamil Tigers' cause, the organisation has also contributed to the tactic by perfecting it on land, air and sea. The elite Sea Tigers, for instance, is well known for its ability to inflict serious casualties through suicide attacks on Sri Lankan Navy vessels.

Because of its effectiveness, by the mid-1990s the strategy of suicide attacking had caught the eye of al-Qaeda, which proceeded to conduct, coordinate and synchronise suicide assaults using multiple bombers. This led, of course, not only to the 1998 synchronised bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, but also to the attacks on the US of 11 September 2001. Al-Qaeda's greatest impact has been to inspire other groups to adopt its modus operandi. Besides the massive spread of global jihadi ideology to areas with disparate local grievances, al-Qaeda's influence has also manifested itself in the worldwide increase in suicide bombings. Indeed, out of more than 700 suicide attacks that have been recorded in the course of modern history, over 70 percent have taken place since 9/11.

A new phenomenon
Although Afghanistan has seen constant conflict over the past three decades, there had been no record of a suicide attack within the country until 9 September 2001, just two days before the American targets were hit. On that day, two al-Qaeda members assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, the head of the Northern Alliance. Even after the US-led Coalition forces arrived in Afghanistan in October 2001, the trend in suicide attacks emerged only gradually, with one attack in 2002, two in 2003 and six in 2004.

From that point on, however, the pace escalated dramatically. Learning from the effectiveness of the insurgents in Iraq and other places, various militant groups carried out 21 attacks in 2005, with targets concentrated in Kabul and Kandahar. In 2006, there were 118 suicide attacks, which included political and religious figures as targets. This year, as of 19 June, there have been 59 attacks. What explains this surge in mayhem?

There are several reasons why Taliban and foreign militants have decided that suicide bombings are particularly suitable for use in Afghanistan. First and most straightforward, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have concluded that this approach is most effective in killing Afghan and Coalition troops. This is a direct result of the perceived success of Hezbollah and the LTTE, as well as that of Hamas in Palestine and the various groups now operating in Iraq. Suicide attacks allow insurgents to achieve maximum impact with minimal resources. Studies have found that when insurgents engage in direct combat with Coalition forces in Afghanistan, there is only a five percent probability of inflicting casualties. With suicide attacks, the 'kill-rate' increases several-fold.

Second, Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders have noted that the use of suicide attacks has instilled fear in the local populace. This has not only led to a widespread feeling amongst the Afghan people that the authorities are unable to protect them, but has subsequently destabilised the authority of local government institutions. As such, the gulf between Kabul and the population at large is expanding inexorably, and this serves the purpose of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Third, insurgents in Afghanistan have been able to tap into the expertise and training of the global jihadi community. Militants have been able to impart knowledge on suicide tactics to Afghan groups both in person and through the Internet. Combined with al-Qaeda assistance and recruitment from madrassas in Pakistan, those militants have also supplied a steady stream of potential suicide bombers to the jihadi insurgency in Afghanistan.

Fourth, suicide attacking is extremely effective as an assassination tactic, in situations in which there is significant security around a target. The Taliban and al-Qaeda began to use suicide attackers as assassins over the past year, targeting important personalities including Abdul Hakim Taniwal, the late governor of Paktia who died as a result of the attack on 10 September, 2006; Engineer Mohammed Daoud, the former governor of Helmand, who barely survived the attack; and Pacha Khan Zadran, a member of the Afghan Parliament who survived as well.

Fifth and most important, suicide attacks have provided renewed visibility to the Taliban and its allies – something that guerrilla attacks had been failing to generate. Given their high profile and casualty rate, every suicide attack conducted is reported on in both the regional and international press, providing augmented exposure to the 'cause'.

From without, within
A couple of years ago, there was significant debate in Afghanistan regarding the identity of the suicide attackers causing such havoc. At the time, it was assumed that the majority were foreigners, and that the tactic was essentially an imported product. As more information became available, however, there appeared to be two categories involved in the attacks.

The first group is indeed made up of foreign militants, influenced by the global ideological jihad against the West, especially the United States. This group sees Afghanistan as the second front of that jihad (the first being Iraq), which provides them an opportunity to face their enemy in direct battle. These individuals are heavily inspired by global and Internet-based radical clerics and Taliban members, who proclaim, as Mullah Dadullah (killed in battle against the Coalition Forces on 11 May 2007) did in 2006, that "Afghanistan has been occupied by the crusaders, and it is a personal obligation of the Muslims to fight against them." Thus encouraged and motivated, these people come to Afghanistan from countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with the goal of attaining martyrdom, and of setting an example for the rest of the Muslim ummah.

But a small group of Afghans too are carrying out suicide attacks. While many of the bombers may originate from training camps in Pakistan, the fact that they come from over the border does not necessarily make them Pakistani. An Afghan war orphan educated and trained in a madrassa in Pakistan, who now returns as a suicide bomber, is still an Afghan. While most Afghans believe that suicide attacks are neither culturally nor religiously acceptable, they ignore the fact that Afghan culture is not as isolated as it was in the past. At one point, one quarter of Afghanistan's 25 million people became refugees, and a significant segment of that population attended madrassas in Pakistan, where many were introduced to extremist ideologies. Indeed, such training continues today, and there remains no shortage of suicide recruits from these madrassas.

There are three other prominent possibilities that could lead an Afghan to commit a suicide attack in Afghanistan. First, many operations undertaken by the Coalition forces have killed innocent civilians, including little children. Afghan culture has long placed a priority on revenge for the death of a family member. Second, poverty and unemployment are currently high in parts of south and southeast Afghanistan. Often, those involved in suicide assaults, particularly Taliban members, do so for the monetary support promised to their families. Third, there are instances when the attacker has seemed unaware that he is performing a suicide mission; he is simply given a package to deliver, and a handler ultimately detonates the bomb with a remote trigger.

In addition, the relatively easy access today to various types of technology allows for the very rapid spread of ideas, including dangerous ones. The objective of most of these is straightforward: to inspire and motivate Afghans who are disillusioned with the Coalition forces and the Afghan government to join the jihad. Underlying all of this is the exposure of Afghan citizens to al-Qaeda, which has been very successful in injecting its extremist global ideology throughout Afghanistan. It was during the Taliban's reign from June 1996 until November 2001 that al-Qaeda and the Taliban established a close relationship, wherein al-Qaeda supported and trained many Taliban cadres. Following the post-9/11 transformation of the Taliban from a conventional military force into an insurgent one, this training and indoctrination began to reap significant benefits, and the Taliban started to act as a significantly more sophisticated organisation.

Anti-suicide fatwa
Faced with such a situation, the Kabul government has no choice but to enhance the capacity of its intelligence agencies, with an eye to disrupting the network that organises and supports suicide bombings. As has been widely noted, suicide attackers hardly ever work alone. While intelligence is the initial link in the chain of thwarting any kind of terror attack, it is of utmost importance with regard to suicide attacks.

Police training in particular needs to be enhanced. Currently, the Afghan National Police is given a few of weeks of general training, but recruits receive nothing specific on threat assessment or related analysis. In addition to receiving necessary resources, the police force needs to be taught two sets of skills: first, in engaging the local community in a friendly and professional manner, in order to create a network of unofficial on-the-ground informants; and second, advanced training in counterinsurgency techniques, to be better able to deal with violent groups.

More broadly, there is a crucial disconnect between the military actions in Afghanistan and the reality on the ground. Both Coalition and Afghan troops must abandon their heavy-handed approaches, which tend to kill and injure innocent civilians. They must instead work with local communities, to try and develop mutual trust. The Afghan military must also familiarise itself with the Taliban's new way of operating. After analysing the pattern of recent attacks, it is clear that the two theatres for suicide attacks are Kabul and Kandahar, and security in these hotspots must be immediately increased. Only by knowing the environment and protecting it will the military be able to anticipate future attacks.

But the answers to Afghanistan's future peace can hardly be limited to military actions. The Afghan ulama (religious authorities) must continue to oppose suicide bombing, and issue fatwas to that effect. The moderate religious leadership throughout Afghanistan should be empowered, and given prominent opportunities to spread its message of peace and tolerance. Importantly, the government must cooperate with society at large to formulate healthy counter-ideological measures, such that religious clerics are engaged to initiate dialogue first with the population at large and second with militants and their sympathisers, in order to dispel notions that suicide is compatible with Islamic jurisprudence.

Until Afghan security institutions are sufficiently strengthened, the international community must remain engaged in Afghanistan. Without continued assistance, the country's fragile security institutions will crumble, inevitably leading to a repeat of the early 1990s, when the country was a hub of international militancy and drug production. Most crucially, it is vital that the organic capacity of the state security agencies is developed, so that these agencies do not appear to Afghan citizens to be mere Western lackeys.

Suicide bombings are the horrific residue of larger malaise and so, given both its landlocked position and geopolitical situation, Afghanistan's relationships with its neighbours must be upgraded for the sake of its long-term stability. As such, Kabul must work to strengthen ties with nearby countries, whether through commerce and trade or transfer of knowledge. The two most important neighbours are clearly Pakistan and Iran, and their assistance is crucial to curb the inflow of militants from either West Asia or Pakistan itself.

It also is imperative that strong but informal ties be forged with village communities that live along the Afghan-Pakistani border, as some have been known to offer a safe haven for Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives. Kabul must formulate an overall plan to deal with these communities, and to provide them with necessary services – particularly education and healthcare – with the specific aim of improving living standards. The fact is that the majority of the population in these areas continues to resent the Taliban, and does not wish to go back to the draconian rule that was forced on it under the Taliban regime until 2001. This local mindset translates as goodwill for the Karzai government and must not be squandered.

Looking at the experiences of other states around the world, though, the strength or capability of Afghanistan's government and security sector may not matter all that much. No state, after all, has been able to fully immunise itself from suicide attacks – and Afghanistan may be set to follow this pattern. The trend of suicide bombings in Afghanistan has clearly gone up in the last few years, and it could continue to for the foreseeable future – particularly if the insurgents believe that suicide assaults are the best answer to the very sophisticated military of the West. However, by developing a professional security sector, drawing on global experiences, and incorporating issues of cultural and religious sensitivity, it might still be possible to develop a rational middle way in Afghanistan.

~ Hekmat Karzai is director of the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul.  

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